BANGOR, Maine — Maine native Ellen Umphrey fled Egypt this week, forced to leave her husband of just two months behind, amid a wave of violence and uncertainty in a country with a fledgling democracy that many Egyptians believe has failed to take root.
The now-23-year-old John Bapst Memorial High School graduate arrived in Cairo in the summer of 2010 as an exchange student, studying economics at the American University.
“It’s a bit like being a baby,” Umphrey said Friday of her arriving and learning to live in Egypt. “You have to learn how to integrate into a society where the rules are different.”
Umphrey adapted, learning Arabic as well as the customs and politics of the country. She met her husband, Mohamed Shuman, a 26-year-old oil salesman, soon after arriving in the country. The two were “best friends” for nearly a year before they began dating. They were married in June.
Less than two months later, Umphrey decided to flee the country last week after violent clashes between the military and members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other supporters of coup-ousted President Mohammed Morsi resulted in more than 800 deaths and more than 1,000 arrests.
Umphrey’s husband stayed in Cairo, and she is working with the Arab American Association of New York to get him into the United States, at least until the unrest in Egypt calms down.
In the meantime, Shuman is in a relatively quiet, safe Cairo neighborhood, which Umphrey calls a “safety pocket,” though during the worst of the fighting machine gun fire could be heard in the area and checkpoints popped up. He leaves work an hour early in order to make it home before the strictly enforced 6 p.m. curfew.
In the first month of 2011, just months after Umphrey arrived in Egypt, revolution erupted as millions of Egyptians hit the streets. The rioting led to the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that February.
“Everyone was so hopeful after the revolution,” Umphrey said. “There’s no feeling like it, it was very infectious.”
Violence resurfaced in spurts after Mubarak was ousted, but Egyptians were excited about the country’s first democratically elected president in 2012, she said.
Morsi won, but his opponents took to the streets in demonstrations in 2012 and this year, protesting a stagnant economy and a series of unpopular declarations and rampant arrests.
“Morsi took away all levels of democracy. You can call him democratically elected, but there’s no constitution right now, there’s no parliament,” Umphrey said. “Things weren’t working. [Egyptians] are very, very proud people, and they had nothing to be proud of from the revolution.”
On June 30, just days after Umphrey and Shuman married, millions protested, sparking a military coup days later.
Umphrey said many Egyptians felt Morsi was as bad, if not worse, than Mubarak, but the military junta that has taken control has instilled fear by making frequent arrests, including several of Umphrey’s friends, she said.
Some military leaders in Egypt have labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, but that’s not the case, according to Umphrey. She said the brotherhood is not a homogenous group, and she has known several members of the brotherhood — including her own brother-in-law, who works for the British embassy in Cairo — who are well-educated, moderate and believe their faith can be reconciled with politics. She compares it to the way many American politicians mesh their Christian beliefs with the nation’s politics. Extremist elements of the group, however, have been responsible for violence and the burning of Coptic Christian churches across the country. The military has hit the group hard, essentially sending it underground in recent days after dealing substantial casualties earlier this month.
“Nobody’s innocent in this,” Umphrey said.
Umphrey said she stayed away from the protests, knowing she’s vulnerable as a foreign woman in densely packed squares and streets where violence could spark at any moment.
Egypt’s first shot at democracy faltered badly, but Umphrey believes there’s still hope for the country.
“My hope for Egypt would be that it get another chance for freedom rather than a military junta,” she said.
Umphrey said she will continue working on getting her husband to the U.S., but is considering returning to Egypt in December to visit if she has not been able to get him here by then.